Review: The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson

A magical circus is traveling to an empty lot in the middle of a prairie in Iowa, where the prairie feels like literal magic next to rousing magicians. A freckled middle-aged woman wearing a bright red velvet coat commands Windy Van Hooten’s Circus of Fantasticals in 1920s America. She and her Sparks spin joy and romance for a crowd that will soon exit their tent for a dark world of wars to end all wars and insecure men who smile at pain. It’s George Méliès in a magical, romantic, dark world. 

The First Bright ThingJ.R. Dawson collects romantic tales of circus people and transforms them into misfits clasping for the love and respect missing from their lives. A glittering trapeze artist, a strongwoman, men in pinstripe threads, sapphics traveling through time, a circus king out for revenge, and grotesque illusions are shaped into this book set on a hot Iowan prairie. 

But Dawson also goes deeper: how the circus is not just a romantic escape but a path for those on the outskirts of society. Sparks, magicians with specific talents, walk in between the difficult choices the world presents. The First Bright Thing is about the choice to be as terrible as their abusers or to resist with pizazz. Rin’s circus of fantasticals name themselves misfits in more than one means–queer and defiantly happy. In Dawson’s The First Bright Thing, some Sparks time travel, others heal bullet wounds, and then there are those that incite violence in the slimiest of ways. Their society paints them as a threat, so much so that parents shove them to a sanitarium to be fixed–gay conversions immediately come to mind. At the opposite end of all the hate in The First Bright Thing stands Rin and her magical circus, performing illusions for people that want a little joy in their life. But a monster from her past haunts this new happy life–friends and lovers most of all. 

The Circus King and his Midnight Illusionatories have arrived in the Midwest with nightmare tents of black and red. He cuts a cunning figure with a sharp face, a suave black coat, and a tophat of bloody red. His intentions are the opposite of Rin’s. Ownership. Manipulation. All-consuming power.

The First Bright Thing observes memory, dipping in between the past and present. It’s the story of Rin in the present and Edward, a young soldier given a second chance at life after dodging the horrors of the great war. Dawson vividly paints the horrendous realities of trauma, as with Edward peeling off his war-damaged jumpsuit like a skin he can’t quite escape from. Edward’s story is about how that jumpsuit never really leaves him. It even eats at his ability to feel human and to live in the world as a human. Because Edward discovers that he’s got a special ability. He can make people do horrible, disturbing things. 

The First Bright Thing jumps into a straightforward novel of love, romance, and surviving abuse. Those that know the precise horrors that abuse entails also know it doesn’t just end with the escape but that building relationships afterward is an uphill battle of many horrors. Magic is power in Dawson’s world. Here, in a book of unflinching truths, are uncomfortable scenes of women wilting like flowers in the face of cold, demanding domesticity, taking their confidence down inch by inch until it feels as if they do not exist at all. 

I used to go to the circus in Iowa many times with my parents, including the locations featured in this book. The prairie, the hardships of being queer in the Midwest, and the beautiful sounds of cicadas are all very familiar. The author’s descriptions of the setting did not always feel real. Dawson plays a bit into the stereotype that cities are queer utopias, effectively erasing the rural queer communities of my home. 

The First Bright Thing is like falling into a tent of sharp costumes, trapeze artists, and cabinets of curiosities–both sour and sweet. It is not flawless, but it is a richness of layered narratives. If you ever want to spend a summer in a dark fantastical circus, enter J.R. Dawson’s The First Bright Thing.

Read The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson

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Brigid Flanagan

Brigid Flanagan

Brigid spends her life searching the deep, dark world of words and storytelling. She spends her time thinking about folklore, mythology, lyrical sagas, and a mixture of all types of romantic legendary tales. They review @thefantasyinn and have written for media outlets on anything having to do with bookish content and nerdy fandom.